Here's What Happened When I Tried Moderation Management

Here’s What Happened When I Tried Moderation Management

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This post was originally published on July 18, 2014.

Every now and then my addiction tries to convince me that I never truly hit bottom with alcohol and could probably drink moderately again one day. When that happens, I remind my disease that I’ve tried that, thanks. Before surrendering to 12-step recovery, I tried Moderation Management, a secular support group for “non-dependent problem drinkers.”

I had good reason to be worried about my drinking, since I’d kicked a coke habit less than two years prior. Back then, I’d made a conscious decision not to quit drinking because—say it with me, kids—alcohol wasn’t my problem! I craved the sharp bright grip of stimulants, and anything that made me feel slower and dumber wasn’t something I was going to lose control over. Right? Plus, drinking was so much harder to avoid. Even my friends who were “good kids” drank, and if I couldn’t, I’d surely feel deprived of all fun—and be more likely to throw in the towel on the whole getting better thing and make a beeline for the nearest coke supplier. I actually thought I was finding a balance for a change.

As I soon discovered, though, alcohol is a drug. Period. I didn’t want to catch alcoholism, but before long it got harder to escape the sense that it might be catching me. One day while nursing the umpteenth marathon hangover, I made a few Google searches and found MM’s woefully ‘90s website. Bingo! Bye bye, emergency Gatorade cache in the car—now I would learn how to control my drinking and be a normal person at last.

Our meeting consisted of seven people in a therapist’s office. Each week we went around and shared how we were moderating and managing and set drinking goals for the following week. We shared techniques like “pacing and spacing,” which is easier said than done. AA-bashing was considered bad form , but there was no talk of disease or spirituality in this heavily CBT-influenced program. Cross-talk was encouraged, and I felt supported by the other, older people in my group.

MM does outline nine “steps” towards change, but they’re more like guidelines and can be done in any order. We rarely talked about the steps at all. All I remember was that Step 2 involved 30 days without drinking. We called it “doing a 30,” and I just never did it, though others did. My longest dry run was 10 days, and since there are no sponsors, nobody made me do more. I did buy the textbook called Responsible Drinking, where I identified my drinking triggers and life goals and set personalized drinking rules. I even filled out the big questionnaire to help determine whether abstinence would be a better path (aka, whether I was a bona fide alkie). I scored right on the borderline, because let’s face it, the line between “sometimes” and “often” can be pretty damn blurry.

I was lucky to have a meeting in my area. They’re few and far between, so MM relies heavily on an online community—aka an email listserv. Having associated listervs with the dark ages, I was completely unprepared for this aspect of the program. Each day, literally a hundred new messages from problem drinkers all over the globe flooded my inbox. It was impossible to read them all, and I found myself latching on to certain members and threads and guiltily scrolling past others. One longtime MMer posted daily CBT exercises. Another led the “Ice Cream Thursdays” thread each week, where anybody planning to “abs” for the day would announce the flavor of frozen dessert they were going to eat instead of drinking. There was a whole lingo to learn: abstaining three days in a row was a “trike,” four made you “f’abs.” We usually committed to these dry runs in groups (as in, “Who’s up for a trike this week?”) and would check in daily to report our success.

Then there was the notorious “train.” At the start of each month, anyone who wanted to ride it would choose a certain number of drinks as their daily maximum. Ideally, we’d scale back our max each month until it stayed firmly in the green zone: four drinks for men, three for women. I could never manage a limit below five. The most annoying part of this wasn’t counting the physical drinks, it was figuring out how many drinks my drinks counted as. Some cocktails, and even some beers, contained enough alcohol for two or even three standard drinks. All in all, it was a lot more math than I’d bargained for.

But there was one more requirement to ride the train: you couldn’t drink more than two days in a row. So if you wanted to party (moderately) on Friday and Saturday, both Thursday and Sunday were off limits. I struggled with the two-day rule even more than with the daily max. It completely changed my conception of what a weekend was. The power of the train resided in accountability. Each rider had to log their daily drink count in a public forum. Breaking either the daily max or the two-day rule constituted “falling off the train,” but those who did so were still encouraged to pick themselves up and “run alongside it” rather than downing the nearest fifth of bourbon and calling it a month.

For five months, I went to meetings almost weekly, rode the train and logged my drinks and dry days. But one night, despite feeling connected to both the in-person and online groups, I just stopped going. I assumed I would go back the next week, and I didn’t. Then I stopped checking my listserv. My last public log in consists mainly of red numbers (too many drinks) and big swaths of green zeroes (for dry days). All or nothing. The language of alcoholism. By the end of the month I’d stopped logging drinks altogether, and soon I was a permanent resident of Hangoverland once more.

Lest I give the impression that MM was completely useless, it wasn’t. It did help me scale back my drinking for a while, and if stopping early ever saved me from a DUI, I’ll never know for sure (though it didn’t help the program’s founder, Audrey Kishline). But mostly it just threw my very real drinking problem into stark relief. There were some in MM who clearly didn’t need AA.  Just as I was writing this I opened up my listserv account and saw many of the same names, still triking and training along. Good for them. For me, abstinence ultimately ended up being not only necessary but easier, though I never could have imagined it back then. There were others in the meetings who were just like me. I wonder if they still go, or if they’ve surrendered to sobriety too. Though I feel a twinge of sadness at the thought that I’ll never go back there to find out, I know I’ve found where I belong.

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About Author

Erica Larsen AKA Eren Harris blogs at Whitney Calls and Clean Bright Day. Their writing has also been published on Salon, Selfish, Violet Rising and YourTango. They live in Los Angeles with their husband and their enormous cat.